By Ellen Hill Photographs by David Hill
Dozens of family-owned and independent buses are on the brink of collapse, thousands of drivers could lose their jobs and “Mum and Dad’’ operators stand to lose their homes as an impact of COVID-19 restrictions.
To highlight their plight and lobby for a government rescue package, desperate small bus company owners will rally outside NSW Parliament on Wednesday, September 16.
Spokesman Rod Williams, who owns Near or Far Bus & Coach in the Blue Mountains, said while smaller bus companies were grateful for government help such as JobKeeper, many aspects of the industry had been overlooked.
Forgotten victims of the COVID-19 fallout, small companies needed help with crippling costs like depot rental payments, vehicle registration, insurances, fuel costs and toll fees to remain viable and provide job security for employees.
They called on government to share transport work with all accredited operators in NSW rather than just large companies.
“This isn’t about pitting small companies against big companies, but we do need a road to recovery plan,’’ Mr Williams said.
“Family-owned and independent bus companies are essential. We transported firies during the 2019-20 Black Summer bushfires. We’ve been there countless times when the trains or airlines go down. We transported your children on excursions, your guests to your wedding and took you safely home after your Christmas party.
“All of this is now at stake. Now we need help.’’
Pre-COVID, Near or Far had four coaches, a mini bus and a healthy turnover.
Within 24 hours on March 15-16, “everything was stripped from our calendar’’ as travel restrictions put the brakes on schools excursions, community group outings and sightseeing tours.
A second round of cancellations when the Victorian pandemic worsened gouged his business further.
Cyril Govender of Cyril’s Coach Tours at Narellan and Andy Leonello of Al Tours at Luddenham, who relied on the school transport market, haven’t “turned the wheel’’ of their vehicles since March.
“I don’t go to the letterbox anymore – the bills scare me,’’ Mr Leonello said.
He worried about the thousands of bus drivers, mechanics, cleaning and other ancillary staff employed by the bus industry.
“We’re not using our vehicles so we don’t need windscreens, tyres or technicians, which means we’re not bringing business to these people,’’ he said.
Like Mr Williams, many owners had coaches inspected, registered and serviced, ready to step in to replace trains or other modes of transport if needed as per their Emergency Bussing Standing Order commitments.
They hoped that Transport for NSW would share with smaller companies work like the transfer of returned travellers from the airport to quarantine hotels.
Scheduled rail replacement on the Blue Mountains line until September 18 was another opportunity.
“All of my coaches will be sitting at home available,’’ Mr Williams said. “I hope at least one of them will get a run alongside vehicles from outside the area.’’
Just one shift per week would be enough to keep a small business viable.
While owners were grateful for JobKeeper payments which ensured they could keep many staff, the allowance did not cover vehicle maintenance and running costs.
“It’s life and death now,’’ Mr Williams said. “I’ve got guys ringing me in tears and threatening suicide, and that impacts my own mental health.’’
As the end of loan repayment holiday periods loom, bus owners who invested in their business before the pandemic, now face foreclosure on their vehicles because they are unable to meet the payments.
Mr Govender invested in a fleet upgrade pre-COVID, financing it with a loan. The bank has since demanded he make half payments, with full monthly payments expected from the end of September.
Pick of the Crop Coach Tours from Riverstone owner Jeff Spence sold five of his buses, with four registered “just in case’’. The registered and insured on each costs $12,000 a year.
Nazio Fillipi, who owns Australian Bus & Coach Service which operates Bargain Buyers and Legend Shopping Tours, took a job driving trucks to cover his rent and lease payments.
His company has operated well known shopping tours for more than 30 years. This year was the first season ever cancelled. That meant sporting clubs, schools and charities which usually shared its profits did not receive those funds.
Mr Spence was concerned that drivers would disappear into other sectors, leaving the bus industry short of qualified drivers when buses are eventually back on the road.
Meanwhile, drivers like Glenorie Coaches’ Michael Wood and Kelvin Weatherburn from Near or Far Bus & Coach worried there wouldn’t be jobs to return to in an industry they have dedicated their working lives to.